A Crescent Over Europe?

July 1, 2005

For well more than half a century, America has enjoyed exceptionally close security ties to Europe. The relationship has been strained at times—recall the Suez Crisis of 1956 and Euro-missile fight of 1983—but common political and cultural values have always helped heal the wounds.

As a result, the Old and New Worlds have stood together when it counted.

However, this Atlantic partnership might not survive a radical change in Europe’s basic nature. Few ever believed such a thing could happen, but, within the next several decades, Europe could well undergo such a change. The Continent’s restive Islamic minority is poised to grow in numbers and hence political power, and it is overwhelmingly anti-American.

Incredible as it might seem, some experts predict that Europe will have an Islamic majority sometime well before the end of this century. Thus, the US may at some point look across the Atlantic and see not the familiar, nominally Christian, and largely secular partner it has known for many decades but something else entirely: an Islamic Europe.

Historian Niall Ferguson of New York University notes, “The whole of Western Europe is entering a new era of demographic transformation without parallel in modern times.”

Some perspective is in order. Fear that a Muslim flood is about to overwhelm the Continent has long been a theme of fringe political activists and polemicists in Europe. It is anything but inevitable; today’s population trends might shift dramatically, and the dire predictions of the death of Western civilization could well prove unfounded.

Even so, many of Europe’s domestic political problems already stem from conflict between resident Muslims and the rest of society. Just look at the rise of far-right, anti-immigrant political parties in such historically tolerant nations as the Netherlands. These cultural tensions often erupt into violence, such as the grisly murder last November of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had directed a movie critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Van Gogh was slain on an Amsterdam street by a self-proclaimed jihadi of Dutch-Moroccan nationality.

These cultural strains have been aggravated by the debate about admitting Islamic Turkey to the European Union. The March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, meanwhile, shocked many Europeans into a realization that they are not immune to the threat of Islamist terrorism.

“Part of the Arabic West”

This uneasiness was stoked further last summer by Bernard Lewis of Prince­ton University, the eminent scholar of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. In an interview with Germany’s Die Welt, Lewis predicted, “Europe will be part of the Arabic west, of the Maghreb,” and added that Europe would be Islamic by the end of this century “at the very latest.” The furor, at least on European editorial pages, has yet to abate.

Current overall population figures hardly seem indicative of a coming cultural phase shift. According to the State Department, Europe today is home to some 23 million Muslims. That is about five percent of the Continent’s population.

These numbers, however, do not include Turkey, with its 67 million Muslims. Add Turkey to the mix and Islam’s share of the European population bumps up to 15 percent. Furthermore, European Muslims are concentrated mostly in a few nations—France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—and, within these states, they are further concentrated into a few urban areas. Muslims now make up more than a quarter of the population of Marseilles, for instance. They are 15 percent of Brussels and Paris, and 10 percent of Amsterdam. For the most part, they live in enclaves in poorer sections of town, such as Berlin’s Kreuzberg district.

Recruiters for radical strains of Islam find their work made easy by the poverty and prejudice many young Muslims face.

What is important, say analysts, is not so much the raw population totals but rather the demographic trends. Over the last 30 years, Europe’s Muslim population has more than doubled, and its growth rate continues to accelerate. Current projections hold that the number of Muslims living in Europe might double again by 2015.

One major reason: immigration. Upward of 900,000 legal immigrants enter Europe each year; most of them are Muslim. The same is true of for­eigners immigrating illegally into Europe, estimated to number 500,000 per year.

Immigration is only one factor in the emergence of Islamic Europe, however. In Muslim communities already there, high birth rates are the norm.

Additional pressure comes from demographic realities in nearby Islamic lands. Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, gave the relevant figures in a recent Wall Street Journal article: “Forty percent of the Arab world is under 14. Demographers tell us that the fertility replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman. Europe is frightfully below this level. … Fertility rates in the Islamic world are … 3.2 in Algeria, 3.4 in Egypt and Morocco, 5.2 in Iraq, and 6.1 in Saudi Arabia.”

Graying of a Continent

Meanwhile, Europe’s non-Muslim population is graying and about to shrink dramatically. Low birth rates in virtually all of Europe’s nations mean the number of non-Muslims is projected to fall some 3.5 percent over the next 10 years and continue to spiral downward. According to the UN, Europe’s population will fall by more than 100 million by 2050. Ferguson, writing recently in the New York Times, noted, “There has not been such a sustained reduction in the European population since the Black Death of the 14th century.”

These trends—major Muslim immigration, high Muslim birth rates, and a shrinking traditional population—point to a steady rise in Muslims as a proportion of Europe’s people. In an influential article in the Washington Quarterly in 2004, Timothy M. Savage of the State Department’s Office of European Analysis estimated that Europe would be 20 percent Muslim by 2050.

“Some even predict that one-fourth of France’s population could be Muslim by 2025 and that, if trends continue, Muslims could outnumber non-Muslims in France and perhaps in all of western Europe by midcentury,” he pointed out.

Demographic projections are far from being rock-solid, of course. Populations are affected by too many variables to permit precise estimating. At a minimum, however, it is clear that Europe’s accommodation of its growing Muslim minority could pose a major challenge to domestic unity.

The first wave of Muslim immigrants began flowing into Europe in the wake of World War II. It generally followed prewar national relationships, colonial or otherwise. Turks flocked to Germany, Algerians to France, Indians and Pakistanis to Britain, and so forth.

The newcomers took jobs that the native-born found distasteful or unremunerative. Because of prejudice against them, poverty, and deep cultural differences, they clung to their own enclaves. This separatism was in at least one way encouraged by official policy. In the name of multiculturalism, the Dutch have long allowed immigrants extensive control over the education of their children.

Subsequent waves of Muslim immigrants have poured into Europe. The basic dynamics of the immigrant communities, however, has not changed much.

Roiling Europe

This Muslim minority is now roiling European politics. This stems, in part, from the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and the train bombings in Spain. In the aftermath of these terrorists attacks, many in the non-Muslim European majority began to look more fearfully at the newcomers in their midst and to speak more openly and critically about the societal changes they have already wrought.

Muslims, for their part, protested that they suddenly had been turned into aliens in their adoptive homes.

Cultural differences have become flashpoints. France has tried to ban the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in public schools. A report on religious expression in French education found that such expression is on the increase, especially among Muslims, and that administrators deny this is happening. In a number of schools, the position of Muslim teenage girls has become precarious, according to this study, which was compiled between 2003 and 2004 by a team of Ministry of Education officials. The girls are informally banned from participating in team sports, and their conduct is monitored constantly by an informal religious police composed of young men.

In the campaign leading up to the May elections, Britain’s ruling Labor Party advocated making immigrants learn English and take a “British-ness test” to qualify for permanent resident status. The test—which would be based on an existing government handout explaining life in the United Kingdom—might ask such questions as, “Where do Cockneys live?” and “What foods constitute a traditional English Christmas dinner?”

Extremists on both sides of this debate at times have resorted to violence. Last November’s slaying of van Gogh shook the Netherlands and Europe at large. Van Gogh’s film “Submission” depicted violence against women in Muslim societies and included scenes of a woman in see-through clothing with Koranic script written on her body. Islamic militants issued death threats in response to this perceived blasphemy.

In the wake of the murder, some Dutch mosques were firebombed. European extremist parties such as France’s National Front and Belgium’s Flemish Bloc have gained at the polls as a result of an anti-Muslim backlash. Even before the latest flare-up of violence, such parties seemed to be gaining ground. National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked France when he finished second to President Jacques Chirac in the first round of the 2002 Presidential elections.

The fear fanned by the extreme right is that the traditional European way of life is threatened by the increase in storefront mosques and shops selling halal meat. There is evidence that some non-Muslim Europeans are voting not only with their ballots but also with their feet. Dutch emigration, for instance, has bumped up from around 38,500 a decade ago to 46,000 in 2003, the latest year for which full figures are available.

Internal Jihad

Should Europeans fear internal jihad? After all, the al Qaeda cell that spawned much of the Sept. 11 plot was formed in Hamburg, Germany. In April, Spanish authorities put more than 20 Muslims on trial in the largest criminal prosecution anywhere for Sept. 11-related crimes. The 2004 Madrid train bombings make clear that Europe could face a future not only as the terrorists’ logistics base but also as one of their principal targets.

The majority of European Muslims are not radical Islamists, just as most non-Muslims are not supporters of the radical anti-immigrant parties. Writing last year in an issue of the journal Foreign Policy, historian Ferguson declared, “Most young Muslims in England clearly prefer assimilation to jihad,” a claim that seems to apply in other nations, too.

Still, all signs are that al Qaeda has burrowed extensively into Europe. It was in 1996, long before the Sept. 11 attacks, that Spain launched its first major investigation into the presence of Islamic radicals on Spanish soil. They discovered terror support cells supplying money and men to fight for Muslim causes from Bosnia to Afghanistan. The networks were kept under surveillance, but it was not until the 2001 attacks that authorities suspected the cells of exporting terrorism and therefore rolled them up.

In its most recent annual report on terrorism, the Dutch security service concluded that the terrorist threat has shifted from an imported strain to a homegrown variety. A number of terrorist networks now operate within the Netherlands, the report said. At an April press conference, Siebrand van Hulst, director of the security service, noted, “Before, there were international networks, but now the threat comes from within national frontiers. This trend is also evident in other European countries.”

These jihadists are homegrown, according to one analyst. That means they are not radicals who have emigrated to Europe but second- and third-generation Europeans, typically jobless males whose ennui and sense of grievance make them easy marks for terror recruiters.

This is a different breed. According to the French scholar Olivier Roy, author of Globalized Islam, they are not concerned with typically Middle Eastern preoccupations such as the cause of Palestine or Israeli settlements. Nor, he said, are they the products of rigorous Islamic theological education. They often speak English, or Dutch, or French fluently and have spent some period of their youth living in a highly Westernized manner.

An example is Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-Moroccan would-be pilot nabbed by US authorities in August 2001 and who pled guilty to terrorist conspiracy charges this spring. Moussaoui has a master’s degree from London’s South Bank University. He was not radicalized until he began attending that city’s Finsbury Park mosque, run by an extremist imam.

At a recent Council on Foreign Relations seminar, Roy summarized his argument thus: “Islamic radicalism is a by-product of Westernization and not a backlash [against] traditional Muslim culture.” He added, “This is something which is very important.”

Other analysts dispute Roy’s reaction-to-Westernization theory of Islamic extremism. They place more emphasis on actions by the sources of the current terrorist ideology—Osama bin Laden and other Middle East-based radical Islamist leaders.

Social Challenge

Whatever the true cause of the problem, there is little question that assimilation into society of huge numbers of young, alienated Muslims constitutes one of the biggest social challenges that Europe ever has faced.

Of the 660 original US detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 20 were citizens of European nations; only two were US citizens. European authorities have detained 20 times more terrorist suspects in the years since Sept. 11 than have their US counterparts.

From these data and other factors, Savage drew an alarming conclusion. “The key point,” he wrote in the Washington Quarterly article, “is not that Europe’s legal environment and location offer a convenient platform from which terrorists can operate but that the chemistry resulting from Muslims’ encounter with Europe seems to make certain individuals more susceptible to recruitment into terrorist networks.”

Going forward, the big challenge for Europe’s leaders will be to accommodate legitimate claims of Muslim minorities without sparking overreaction from the radical anti-immigrant parties.

European foreign policies already have been affected. Chirac’s adamant stance against Washington’s drive to war in Iraq no doubt stemmed, in part, from the opposition of France’s Islamic residents. “In ways both intended and subliminal,” Ajami wrote, “the escape into anti-Americanism is an attempt at false bonding with the peoples of Islam.”

The United States will continue to confront Islamic terrorism around the world. At the same time, Washington’s oldest allies will be engaged in a different kind of struggle with Islam, one with world-significant consequences.

The outcome of this other struggle cannot be predicted. Europe may in the end be reinvigorated by its influx of Muslims, just as America repeatedly has been renewed by immigration and new cultures. At the other extreme, the Continent might be transformed into something different and unsettling, what Bat Ye’or, an eminent scholar of the problem, calls “Eurabia.”

Either way, the West should probably prepare to bid farewell to the old, comfortable trans-Atlantic world of the last half-century.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Fall of the Warning Stars,” appeared in the April issue.